I want to tell a story, but there isn't much to tell. I want it to be the story of a life, not just the story of a miscarriage, because a miscarriage is really an anti-story, a wonderful narrative that was about to unfold but just didn't. The few stories that we do have about death preceding birth tend to run short, like Hemingway's pseudepigraphal six-word short short: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
But I want to do my best to tell the story of your life, you upon whom we bestowed that tongue-in-cheek code name "Byrhtnoþ," after the ill-fated hero of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon
. Ours was possibly the only contemporary household in which "Byrhtnoþ" coded "baby," although as a medievalist I do know my share of parents who have given their children 10th-century names. We even called you "the Byrhtnoþ" before you were conceived, back when you were a more hypothetical species of hypothetical child. I think some people half-believed that we'd actually end up naming you that once you were born. But you weren't born.
There's a grim maxim in Don DeLillo's White Noise
to the effect that "all plots move deathward." I've often thought about the converse of that maxim, the way in which all deaths move plotward: a death demands the narrative arc that will render it understandable to those left behind. Like anything else, death demands a story, a story that will help us make sense of mere events. And the more tragic, the more unexpected the death, the more necessary this story becomes. But how do you tell a satisfying story about eight silent weeks in a womb? The rest is silence, sure -- no end can ever really satisfy, no death can be completely conquered by the story that grows up around it -- but how much worse when everything
We do have a few scraps of story to cling to. For one, they originally calculated your due date as the very same day that Peter Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit
was to be released. My wife spent the better part of her adolescence on a Tolkien message board, and the midnight releases of the Lord of the Rings
films had been tremendous events for her younger self. So we often joked -- or, I don't know, maybe she was always perfectly serious about it -- that we would be in the theater that night in December, come what may. Born in a movie theater, or very near to it: there was a great first story that could follow you for the rest of your life. For us, this imagined story added an air of genuine excitement and anticipation to a movie we knew was going to be a disappointment. Since we ultimately had to see it without you, this fragment of the story of your life instead adds an air of genuine pathos to a film we know to be a disappointment.
There really isn't much else to say about your life. For now, here's part of our story, adjacent to yours, taking it from the top: a little over a year ago, my wife experienced a miscarriage. Or should I say "suffered" a miscarriage? "Endured"? "Went through?" The safe but vague "had"? The fact that I can't even find the appropriate verb to pair with the word is almost certainly a function of the pervasive silence surrounding miscarriage itself. There are memoirs, I know now, web-based support communities, occasional posts drifting around the blogosphere. But you generally have to seek out these specialist discourse communities: during those first weeks after, I began to wonder why people didn't seem to talk about this in public. We talk about abortion, postpartum depression, suicide, parental death. Why not miscarriage? Or had I just not been listening? People were certainly telling me all about them now, but it had been twenty-six years and I'd never learned that she and she and she had had a miscarriage. I definitely didn't know the astoundingly high rate of miscarriage until this particular percentage directly intersected with my own life: I've seen numbers ranging from 20% of all pregnancies to a full third of them, and 15 to 20% in women who know they are pregnant. Based on those numbers alone, it seems unbelievable that people can avoid hearing much about miscarriage before they (attempt to) enter the community of parents. One in 4 mothers may well have had a miscarriage, and some who aren't mothers -- or, rather, some that others don't know as mothers because they only had a few weeks, just like we only had a few weeks with you.
Early last October, roughly five months after the miscarriage, my wife and I learned that she was pregnant once again. There was a single day of elation -- or, really, a single moment of elation and a single day of cautious optimism -- but, on the morning of Day Two, she had already discovered some blood, the same horrific sign that had portended the miscarriage last time. The old anxiety descended immediately, followed by a second ER visit, during which they can really only rule out the medical emergency of an ectopic pregnancy. (Ruled out.) While we thought that the spotting was too late to be fresh implantation bleeding, we learned that a small spot of blood around that time could mean the implantation of a twin: in my mind, that meant we had found ourselves in a sort of macabre "double or nothing" scenario. Over the next few weeks, there were three more episodes of bleeding, and so three more times we filed into the ultrasound room, absolutely convinced that the baby was dead. But then a heartbeat, each time: we just had to make it to the second trimester, we kept telling ourselves. If you don't know -- I didn't -- although it's so common early on, miscarriage becomes extremely rare after the first trimester, except in obvious cases of physical trauma. But that's a long time to wait, especially if you've already experienced one miscarriage: it's a long, long time from seeing that positive line on the test strip to the end of the first trimester, almost two and a half months. And after that, of course, it's still not over. I remember one night of panic-terror about halfway through the pregnancy, triggered by some unexpected bleeding and an inability to locate the fetal heartbeat with the Doppler monitor we had invested in. Eventually we found the heartbeat, but the fear lingered.
I remember when my wife called her parents to tell her the news of her second pregnancy. Voice almost cracking, she distinctly said, "Mommy, I'm pregnant." What she didn't say was, "I'm pregnant again
." I think that I told my own parents, without hesitation, that she was pregnant again
: I don't know whether or not it was a deliberate decision on her part to suppress that insidious word "again," but now I wish I had done it, too. What an admirable way to avoid framing this pregnancy as some second attempt, a renewal of the effort, a repetition, a replacement, a correction. Just, "I'm pregnant," a fact significant in itself. It was also my wife's decision not to refer to the second unborn child by the same name we had referred to the one that we lost, Byrhtnoþ. I was ready to keep on using it, only because, as I mentioned earlier, "the Byrhtnoþ" had always been our term for "Unborn Child" in the abstract, shorthand for potentiality. But she decided, rightly, that the name had become sufficiently attached to a particular individual to retire it. Is there, by the way, a formal term for those various (non-)names we give to the unborn? And I ask that not just because that's the only name our first will ever have. It's an interesting phenomenon, these oxymoronic names before names: I suppose a name before naming is perfectly appropriate for that span of life before life. Junior. Peanut. The Bun. Fetal names, womb nicknames, pre-names? The Latinist in me both does and does not want to propose "praenomen" as an etymologically apt term for these names before naming. (Praenomen: the pre-name, the before-name, but in ancient Rome simply the word for the first name: Marcus, Octavius, Gaius.) In the womb, our newborn daughter Nova
was named after Æðelþryð, the Northumbrian queen-turned-abbess whose saint's life by Ælfric is often used to teach introductory Anglo-Saxon. Why Æðelþryð, or Byrhtnoþ for that matter? It was just in fun. We never really gave it much thought, but retrospectively it does seem fitting to match an Old English name to a developing fetus. Philology recapitulates ontogeny, and all that.
But even now I'm wandering from the story. Again, it's simply a difficult story to tell for many reasons. I suspect that we don't hear about miscarriage very often in part because of how it frustrates narrative: a miscarriage is not a story. A miscarriage is a story that never began, a ghost of a story that just wasn't to be lived and wasn't to be told. (Ghost isn't a word I use lightly here.) Consider: even in fiction, we don't see nearly as many miscarriage plots as we do plots about death during childbirth, especially maternal death. A miscarriage just fits so awkwardly into a developing storyline, but, when the mother dies and the baby lives, what a great story that can make: all that potential for drama, emotion, catharsis, symbolism. New life in the midst of death, that kind of thing -- a theme just as appropriate for the stuffiest generational saga as it is for the latest horror flick from the mass culture machine. But miscarriage? How does that advance a plot? Story-wise, after a miscarriage you're right back to where you were a couple months ago.
Except, well, you're not.
I had been planning to write up a blog post for a long time reflecting on how a miscarriage is not a story and never appears as a plot point in narrative media, but then of course one day -- in the waiting room at the OB, if you can believe it -- I overheard a reference in the soap opera running on the TV to a past miscarriage plot: "Are you saying that it's my fault that I lost my baby?" Apparently this Days of Our Lives
miscarriage had been caused by some kind of preventable trauma, like a car accident, a convenient way for the show to externalize and render tangible the guilt that mothers feel anyway about spontaneous miscarriages with unknown causes -- that is, the overwhelming majority of them. Is the soap opera, then, the one narrative genre where the miscarriage can flourish, the long-running soap opera that needs to sprawl across years, that even thrives on taking steps backwards in plot development, because they prolong its slow run to nowhere? At the same time, though, what a waste that still seems: so much passion and intrigue went into producing that soap opera baby! In my attempt to track down the episode I had overheard, I discovered a 2012 thread on the Internet message board for the Soap Opera Network titled "Most annoying soap miscarriages/stillbirths"
, which expresses frustration at how miscarriage storylines indeed simply waste time: "Were there any times when this really annoyed you, or you felt like all kinds of time had been wasted for nothing?"
As you might imagine, that's not quite what living a miscarriage plot feels like.
But maybe I'm forced to admit that it's not really so much that miscarriages aren't stories, just that they're invisible, stories that aren't told because it's easier not to tell them. It took me over a year to compose this short post, after all: I know it would have been easier to remain silent. And it's also hard to tell what kind of stories they are, what kind of stories they should be. Are they ours, stories for and about us survivors? Or can they belong to the unborn child to any extent?
It may seem strange -- I hope not too morbid -- but I just want to get the story of your life out here. I want to tell your story as your story, before, as I know it will, the memory fades and folds into the life story of my daughter, and of any other future children. It shouldn't be your fate to become the bittersweet prologue to another you's story, a roadblock on the path to her, rather than a path to something else that turned out not to be.
This, then, is the narrative I want to resist: you died, but she lived. You died, but we came through it stronger and closer together, etc. (They told us that miscarriages are known to destroy marriages, statistically.) You died, so we felt doubly lucky, doubly blessed to have her. You died, but... You died, then... I don't like the shape of those stories. I don't want to forget when you were just you, and not part of a story that begins with your death. Forgetting is what breeds ghosts. Will you haunt us? What about your sister, will you be her first vengeful ghost? When will we tell her about you? Because here's a part of the story that we can't help but tell: you and she simply could not have both have lived. She came to occupy the same space that you departed, long before your nine months would have been up. Your displacement by her is not merely figurative or narrative, but literal and physical. I suppose your relationship, then, can't be quite brother to sister, since the two of you never could have been
brother and sister. If you had survived to birth and beyond, she would never have existed, never would have been able to exist.
This then, is the shape of the story we have to arrive at, the story we can't resist: if you hadn't died, she wouldn't have lived. It's not a consolation for the loss of you; it's just the way it is. I can't say that I'll remember you every single time I look at her, but you'll be there, and I will remember. I'll remember you alongside all the ghosts of potentiality that hover around us as we live our lives in the world, the near-infinite alternative possibilities that each one of us displaces by acting, by even existing. Maybe, just maybe, all those ghosts live out there with you in one alternate universe or another: the science is still out on that.
But it would make a nice story.
And with that I think I'm done for now, but I haven't finished telling this story by any means. At some point in the near future, look for Part II, in which I may get a bit more academic and a little less confessional. I should remind any friends and family who may be reading this post that this is an academic blog, and my continued reflections will owe a larger debt to my critical interests in science fiction studies
, medieval studies
, and narrative theory, particularly concepts of ending, the latter of which is after all the major focus of my dissertation
. I want to look more deeply into the cultural and linguistic histories of the concepts of miscarriage and abortion: after all, "spontaneous abortion" remains, cruelly, the preferred clinical term for a miscarriage. For example, I've never been one to romanticize dead letters, but it turns out that one of the obsolete definitions of miscarriage is in fact "The failure of a letter, etc., to reach its destination; delivery to the wrong recipient" (OED
). For the word "abortive," The Middle English Dictionary
also records the definition "Parchment made from the skin of a stillborn animal."
As far as literary texts go, Paul Muldoon's short poem "The Stoic" is one of the only works explicitly about miscarriage that I'm really familiar with, but it's definitely worth talking about. But I think next time my major text will be Ted Chiang's science fiction short story "Story of Your Life," the title of which I've already stolen, and which I try to teach in all of my courses because it pairs so remarkably well with Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight's Tale. Like several of Chaucer's narratives, Chiang's story grapples with what weighed on us so heavily during the troubled early days of my wife's first pregnancy, and then all throughout her second: the simple, universal uncertainty of being in time, of living a story without a known ending. Like Chaucer, Chiang also explores this uncertainty by postulating a world in which we can know endings in advance. In fact, the whole of "Story of Your Life" could have been inspired by a single line from The Knight's Tale, the famous snippet of Boethian wisdom that urges us "to make a virtue of necessity" ("Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me, / To maken vertu of necessitee" [3041-42]). I've debated with myself about whether or not to bring our miscarriage into the classroom -- "Story of Your Life" also happens to be a story about child loss -- and perhaps a second post can help me find an effective way to do that.
Because these stories should be told.
Loveland Castle -- also known as "Chateau Laroche" -- is a small, unfinished folly castle tucked away on a quiet shaded riverbank in Loveland, Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati. A World War I veteran and lifelong bachelor named Harry Andrews began construction of the castle in 1929, and took up permanent residence there in 1955 until his death in 1981. In the heroic myths about the man that he did much to propagate himself, Andrews is credited with roughly 98 to 99% of the labor that produced the structure, which included carrying up over 55,000 five-gallon buckets of stones from the Little Miami River, as well as shaping the remaining bricks out of concrete and assorted rejectamenta poured painstakingly into paper milk cartons. Today, the castle remains a local curiosity and an inexpensive tourist destination, and is also available for rent to host weddings and receptions; overnights for church and Scouting groups; formal photo shoots; and ghost hunts or "paranormal investigations." In the fall, the castle regularly transforms itself into a haunted house, and has also hosted other events resembling small-scale Renaissance festivals.
I grew up about 30 miles from Loveland Castle, and last year I revisited the castle for the first time as an adult -- and, more importantly, now as a practicing medievalist. Accordingly, the following post will examine this fascinating but in some ways troubling example of 20th-century medievalism from the critical perspective of a medievalist who was nevertheless enchanted with the castle as a young child. In fact, as I began to compose this piece, I realized that Loveland Castle may even be partly to credit for setting me on the path to becoming a professional medievalist. If I recall correctly, the first time I visited the castle was on an elementary school field trip with the local gifted program Project ASCENT; in retrospect, that program seems to have profoundly influenced my later intellectual development, with a series of special units that first sparked my interest in, among other things, classical mythology, ancient Egypt, Shakespeare, and of course the European Middle Ages.
The Chateau Laroche, of course, is far from the only "medieval" castle in America. There are over 115 similar medievalizing castles and estates listed on Wikipedia alone, the majority of which were constructed during the great medieval revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and several of which have found their way onto the National Register of Historic Places. (Much more on that word "historic" in just a moment.) And that list doesn't even consider practical follies like the Mount Airy Water Tower (below), located not 20 miles from Loveland Castle, and a possible inspiration for Andrews: I learned that the water tower was built from 1926 to 1927, and Andrews first acquired his land in 1927. Perhaps the most notorious American castle, even if not known by name, is the Thornewood Castle in Washington, allegedly a perfect reconstruction of a 15th century English home that was dismantled and shipped across the Atlantic and even around Cape Horn. There's an entire scholarly monograph just waiting to be written on the subject of American castles, but not by me -- we'll have to settle for a simple blog post for now, and just on the one castle, the single moment in the long history of medievalism that Loveland Castle represents.
We could begin with questions of "authenticity," questions that are clearly on the minds of many visitors to the castle as well as its current caretakers. For instance, on the official homepage of the Loveland Castle
, we find this curious exchange topping the list of frequently asked questions: "Question
: Is it a real castle? Answer
: Yes, a thousand years ago when the Roman Empire occupied Britain they built hundreds of keeps just like Harry's. It is full scale, except for the Ballroom which is a 1/5 replica of the ballroom Harry used as a field hospital in WWI." This post isn't concerned with nitpicking historical details -- I like to think I'm not that kind of medievalist -- but obviously Rome withdrew from Britannia far longer than a mere millennium ago, and Andrews's castle looks nothing like a provincial Roman fortification except for perhaps the crudity of its makeshift stonework. Elsewhere on the website, we learn instead that "Harry featured three distinctive styles of architecture [--] German, French and English," which seems closer to the mark: as with many examples of neo-medievalism, architectural and otherwise, the castle is a mishmash of styles combined in the way that appeared most pleasingly medieval to an amateur medievalist. Interestingly, media outlets reporting on the castle variously describe it as everything from a 10th-century Norman-style castle to a 1/5 scale replica of an "actual" 16th-century medieval castle. What's more, as far as I can tell, Andrews at least named
his castle after a 16th-century French castle (i.e., already a post-medieval construction), which had since been remodeled into a 19th-century neoclassical château, and then converted into the field hospital where he was stationed during the war. In short, those looking to Loveland Castle for a faithful representation of a real medieval castle, or as bearer of any genuine truth about medieval history, will be severely disappointed.
But no doubt Loveland Castle is indeed historic in a major way. That word "historic" is to be found everywhere at the castle itself and throughout its promotional materials, even on the mugs bearing its image that you can purchase at the small gift shop corner (Made in China). As the tourism industry has known for a long time, history sells. Of course, history sells even -- and perhaps especially -- when it is not properly verified history, but a mass of half-truths and rumors and narratives that flatter existing conceptions of past epochs.And, speaking of history selling, I'll confess right here that, on my honeymoon in Great Britain, we made a pilgrimage even to the Canterbury Tales visitor attraction in modern Canterbury, in the spirit of critical inquiry and good fun: there's even an illicit photo of me standing next to Chaunticleer. It's not the best picture, because we had to be quick about sneaking it -- I think we were almost sealed in the Nun's Priest's room as the automatic doors closed on us. But in the interests of sharing knowledge, I'll show it here -- I just hope I won't be banned from the attraction in the future, because perhaps I'll want to write a post on it someday. (For brief commentaries on the visitor attraction, you can see David Wallace's already canonical reflection on Chaucerian medievalism "New Chaucer Topographies," or Kathleen Forni's comprehensive new monograph on Chaucer's Afterlife.)
But back to the historicity of Loveland Castle itself: I ultimately decided against putting the word "historic" in my title in ironizing scare quotes, in spite of the glaringly obvious liberties the castle and its staff take with history. (Those aren't ironic scare quotes in that last sentence, either, but simply quotes indicating a lexical use-mention distinction. Naturally!) Loveland Castle encompasses a great deal of history, but what do its caretakers and promoters mean, exactly, when they advertise it as "historic"? Do they even know what they mean? The history that Historic Loveland Castle encodes seems to me fundamentally overdetermined. To the class of 4th graders who visited it on a field trip during their unit on medieval castles, Loveland Castle was indeed "medieval history" in its purest form: here was a living piece of history, a real
castle: this, this is what a castle was like. To the majority of visitors who spend an afternoon at the castle -- over one million and counting, by recent estimates -- it may still represent the only medieval history lesson they've had in some time. To a medievalist, this may be regrettable for obvious reasons, but I don't believe it means we ought to write off Loveland Castle, or even sneer at it too dismissively. From my perspective now as someone who has published here and there on neo-medievalism in contemporary popular culture -- and who also does work on the medievalisms of various intervening centuries -- Loveland Castle means a great deal as a moment in the history of medievalism, specifically, early to mid 20th-century medievalism. What can this site and its hold on the collective Ohio Valley imagination tell us about why we continue to imagine and inhabit the Middle Ages with such enthusiasm six centuries on? Why do we insistently return to the Middle Ages, not only in our historical scholarship, but also with our animatronic roosters and milk carton castles?
I can only begin to answer such questions here, but let's start by probing a little more deeply into the context of the castle's building. Perhaps uniquely for an American castle, the motivations behind the construction of Chateau Laroche can be traced to one man's monomaniacal, lifelong obsession with the idea of the Middle Ages. Sources differ on whether it was his Sunday school class or a Boy Scout troop -- even in the official information distributed by outlets associated with the Castle's current operations -- but Andrews's original motivation in building a castle was to provide a kind of permanent campsite for a group of boys, who came to be organized as the pseudo-chivalric order "The Knights of the Golden Trail," and to whom the castle was bequeathed after Andrews's death. Today the Knights not only keep up the castle, but also keep alive the larger-than-life memory of its builder: in the army he was declared dead of meningitis, but was revived days later and the bacterial cultures from his body saved thousands of others; after his fiancée at home broke off the engagement, he would go on to turn down over fifty marriage proposals later in life; he had an IQ in the 180s and fluency in several languages as well as encyclopedic architectural knowledge; and, finally -- an obviously verifiable falsehood -- he was formally knighted after rescuing a English nobleman during the war. But there was more to the man than the myths: he also had a founding philosophy for the castle and the homegrown chivalric order it housed. In his own words, the construction of the castle represented far, far more than a rearrangement of piles of stones in southern Ohio: "Chateau Laroche was built as an expression and reminder of the simple strength and rugged grandeur of the mighty men who lived when Knighthood was in flower. It was their knightly zeal for honor, valor and manly purity that lifted mankind out of the moral midnight of the dark ages and started it towards the gray dawn of human hope. Present human decadence proves a need for similar action. Already the ancient organization of Knights have been re-activated to save society. Any man of high ideas who wishes to help save civilization is invited to become a member of the Knights of the Golden Trail, whose only vows are the Ten Commandments. Chateau Laroche is the World headquarters of this organization, started in 1927."
My concerns with this statement of purpose, as with my larger concerns about the castle's fidelity to "history," do not finally have much to do with its romantic misprisions and misrepresentations of the nature of, say, chivalry, knighthood, the relative darkness of the Middle Ages. Instead, I'm more intrigued by the larger implications of peddling this peculiar but not uncommon form of medievalism in the 20th and 21st centuries. Thomas A. Michel has already begun to unpack the architectonic rhetoric of the castle itself in a short chapter titled "Harry Andrews and His Castle: A Rhetorical Study," which aims "to argue for a genre of folk architecture based on certain motivational and rhetorical similarities" (112). But Michel is also keen to point out the more uncomfortable dimensions of Andrews's project, which is perhaps not so quaint as it seems as we tour the castle and gaze at old photographs of a genial elderly man carrying buckets of stones from the river. One room in the castle loops television interviews with Andrews from over the years, and his intense anti-feminism -- implicit even in the castle's mission statement, with its emphasis on the power of men and manly virtue to restore a fallen world -- comes across in offhand statements peppered throughout the interviews. Likewise, Michel notes that "women were often made the butt of jokes and puns in his newsletter" (120), and in his writings Andrews warns his boys repeatedly against the temptations presented by loose women seeking to corrupt them. In fact, some of the rhetoric about the decay of the world and the men called to restore its past glory differs very little from the rhetoric of fascism also first brewing in the 1920s. For example, as late as the 1970s, Andrews continued to openly advocate the institutionalization of a national policy of eugenics: "We can, and must encourage the reproduction of the better grade of people, and discourage the reproduction of the lower grades" (The Golden Grail
no. 110, Aug. 1975, qtd. in Michel 121).
When we look at Loveland Castle and enjoy its quaint medievalism, behind it we see a harmless eccentric in love with a fantasy of a more noble, more heroic past. But the form of medievalism that inspired Andrews is nevertheless fundamentally reactionary, even regressive, and this most toxic form of medievalism has manifested itself in both Europe and America at various points and in various ways in the 20th century. Andrews's desire to withdraw from modernity into an illusory past is surely somehow related to the personal paranoia in evidence in the castle's "ax-proof" main door and its bona fide murder holes. Andrews would also tell tales of being pestered, even menaced by "young punks" at the castle -- against whom he would attempt to defend himself with a gun rather than any sword. But there are more interesting stories to tell here than I really can do myself without doing further research: maybe someday someone can really dig deeply into the medievalist rhetoric built into each stone of Loveland Castle.
All of this was not to say that we should dismiss the edifice as a symbol of crypto-fascism that should be avoided by the public and ignored by serious medievalists. Let me close instead with a different perspective on this monument of 20th-century medievalism, with a different context for understanding and appreciating Loveland Castle as an instantiation of that phenomenon. As a medic in World War I, Andrews first became enchanted with the Middle Ages and medieval castles during his stays in England and France. His desire to return to a medieval past was surely influenced or even instilled by his experiences in the world's first modern war: one can see how the mass production of death in the trenches of the Great War could give someone a reason to wish we still fought with swords and for causes we could imagine to be noble, even holy. When we speak of an idealizing medievalism conditioned by experiences in World War I, the two greatest influences on 20th-century medievalism should spring immediately to mind: J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Both Tolkien and Lewis studied and taught medieval literature at Oxbridge, whereas most of Andrews's medieval education was self-taught, and far from professional. Even so, it may be productive, even vitally necessary, to group Andrews and his pet project with the non-scholarly medievalist projects of Tolkien and Lewis. (Tolkien, we might point out, has himself been called a dangerous reactionary and a fascist
for his idolization of the medieval far more often than Harry D. Andrews has.)
Of course, we know that Lewis himself, in spite of the medievalizing fictions he would later produce, was highly critical of what he perceived -- and what many medieval scholars today would perceive -- as cheap, faux medievalism offered up for the consumption of an ignorant public. For this reason, Lewis himself would likely have dismissed Andrews's American castle as he is known to have dismissed other examples of neo-medievalism in his own time. In a letter to his brother dated 7 August 1921, Lewis describes his disgust at discovering an Arthurian tourist industry in Tintagel, which as everyone knows from reading their Geoffrey of Monmouth, was never really associated with King Arthur except in the local imagination: "This has not however deterred some wretch, hated by the muse, from erecting an enormous hotel on the very edge of the cliff, built in toy Gothic, and calling it the King Arthur's Hotel" (153). With lascivious horror Lewis details the hotel's lurid mass-market medievalism, a medievalism of a type familiar to any 21st-century visitor to a Medieval Times attraction or a Renaissance festival; at the end of his lengthy tirade, Lewis insists that he has "not yet exhausted the horrors of the place" (153). In their scholarship, some of which has proven surprisingly resistant in an ever-changing field, Lewis and Tolkien surely present a more accurate view of the Middle Ages than any King Arthur's Hotel or American castle. But we should simply keep in mind that Andrews was born in the same decade as Tolkien and Lewis, and that he fought in the same war, all the while dreaming of the Middle Ages. Andrews, too, began his final preparations to move into the castle permanently in the same year that The Lord of the Rings
was published: no matter how quaint-looking and no matter how reactionary in motivation, Loveland Castle remains part of a larger narrative that needs to be told about medievalism in the 20th century. Tolkien constructed the ideal medieval world that he desired to inhabit word by carefully-chosen word, but, in the very same way, Harry D. Andrews pursued his dream of a time reborn stone by river-polished stone. Whereas Tolkien invented languages and built a medieval world around them, like Lewis filling his fantasy novels with castles in the sky, Andrews pulled his own castle out of the Little Miami River, and left it there on the bank as another powerful reminder of the complexity of our eternal desire for the past. Works Cited
Lewis, C. S. The Letters of C. S. Lewis: Revised and Enlarged Edition
. Ed. W. H. Lewis. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993. Print.
Michel, Thomas A. "Harry Andrews and His Castle: A Rhetorical Study." Personal Places: Perspectives on Informal Art Environments. Ed. Daniel Franklin Ward. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984. Print.
Nova Sophia Miller, born 13 June 2013, decked out in livery gifted by one of my students last semester.
First off, I apologize for the complete lack of blog activity since the dramatic launch of this website last year. Due to my prodigious Web 2.0 savvy, I know that the best way to build an online audience is consistency, consistency probably even before quality of content. So, in pursuit of that goal, I've been consistently not posting anything new on the blog for the past five months. But, in all earnestness, I will do my best to reboot the original plan for substantive new posts every two weeks or so.
On to our subject for today: I've been having fantastic fun teaching my own Middle English course for the first time, and I thought I'd share some of the visual and aural aids I've found useful in introducing students to what can be intimidating and seemingly remote subject matter. Now, since prop comedy is generally regarded to be the lowest form of stand-up, I suppose it follows that "prop pedagogy" is also the lowest form of teaching. But I've long been a believer in the pedagogical efficacy of props, ever since I had the opportunity to lead a lecture on Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale" for a Brit Lit survey, and decided on a whim to use this anthropomorphic rooster figurine to underline the comic potential of the beast fable genre. Not only does this gentlemanly cock cut quite the fine figure in his jacket and trousers, I find that it usefully embodies many of the comic tensions driving the poem, for example helping to bring out the subtle humor in passages like Pertelote's chiding, "How dorste ye seyn, for shame, unto youre love / That any thyng myghte make yow aferd? / Have ye no mannes herte, and han a berd?" (2918-2920). Well, no, Chaunticleer, in spite of his many virtues, unfortunately lacks a "mannes herte": he has a rooster's heart, something we can forget because of the poem's pervasive anthropomorphism.
But that was years ago and now I've got much more than a rooster statue up my sleeve. Let's begin with what I consider my real stroke of genius: a way to make the ubiquitous medieval trope of Fortune's Wheel a presence constantly felt in our very own classroom. It also provides an elegant solution to a certain practical problem, as you'll see. The course I'm currently teaching, "Dreaming and the Middle Ages," devotes the first half of the semester to Chaucer's dream visions and longer historical romance Troilus and Criseyde
. Although my students are, for the most part, upper-level Notre Dame English majors, none of them had had prior experience with Middle English, which means I've had to emphasize the language component of the course. We almost always take some class time to translate a few stanzas together here and there, and it quickly became apparent that only a handful of students were ever going to be willing to volunteer. Since I dislike the apparent arbitrariness and adversarial student-teacher relationship that mere cold calling can evoke, I knew I needed to come up with a better way to get all of the students translating in class. Now, I knew from my own undergraduate Latin courses that, if one simply goes around the table in order, students tend to calculate which passage will fall to them and then work to translate it to perfection, ceasing to pay much or any attention to how their classmates are translating all of the intervening passages -- with terrible results for actual language learning. One of my Latin professors opted for the solution of writing our names on index cards and drawing from the freshly shuffled stack each day, but the pedagogical muse gifted me with an even better idea: why not let Lady Fortune herself -- the implacable blind goddess who rules the sublunary world, foe to Chaucer's bereaved Man in Black, the lovelorn Troilus, and the imprisoned philosopher Boethius alike -- determine who will translate next in class?
All medievalists are familiar with the image of the Wheel of Fortune that adorns many a manuscript page as well as several of the covers of modern editions of certain medieval texts. For example, see this image from the first folio of British Library, MS Royal 20 C IV
, which contains a French translation of Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men
), itself an influential model for an entire genre of writing chronicling the downfalls of great men, including Chaucer's own "Monk's Tale." As Fortune spins her wheel, she elevates some men from a lowly state to greatness, but also causes others already in prosperity and lofty positions to tumble down -- sometimes on multiple occasions in one lifetime. I'm especially fond of this particular illumination because of the way the artist depicts the unfortunate souls on the wrong side of the wheel physically tumbling out of their now upturned chairs.
Combine this hugely important image, which Chaucer repeatedly invokes in his poetry, with a modern carnival wheel, and what do you get? A perfectly fair because perfectly unfair and arbitrary way to choose the next student to translate! As you can see, I've simply keyed this inexpensive dry-erase carnival wheel to the students' initials, and one can never know where Fortune will choose to stop next. As I suggested earlier, this isn't a gimmick -- or, at least, not entirely a gimmick -- as it really does help the students appreciate the cruelty of Fortune and her terrifyingly arbitrary wheel through living it themselves. On the first day we used the wheel, I even made a student translate a second time when her name came up twice, because that's Fortune, right? The next day I admitted to some guilt over that, and excused her from translating the next time the wheel stopped on her name, and excused anyone else from having to translate twice on one day, in spite of the wheel: as I told them, "Fortune is cruel, but I am merciful."
I teach Chaucer's infamously enigmatic dream vision The House of Fame as above all a poem of images, or really of the full sensorium, with sight and sound emphasized although sometimes confused with one another, as when the human discourses that float up to the House of Fame again become embodied as their speakers. This next prop, then, is as much an aural aid as it is a visual one.
If you recall, Chaucer depicts the mechanism by which fame both good and bad is spread across the world as a horn blown by the god of winds, Aeolus, and borne by his henchman Triton; one horn creates good fame, named "Clere Laude," and another black trumpet called "Sklaundre" spreads ill fame. Triton, of course, is the classical sea god that appears as an object of desire along with his most famous attribute, the horn, in Wordsworth's famous sonnet: "...Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn." While Chaucer does not make it clear that we should picture "Clere Laude" as the conventional conch shell of Triton's iconography, I like to think that it is, and I can attest that blowing a good long blast on a conch again helps make the sometimes distant images in these poems very immediate. For instance, the arresting image AND sound of someone blowing on a conch horn makes for a useful prologue to discussing the current of near synesthesia in The House of Fame, which reaches its high point in the description of the "blake trumpe of bras" Sklaundre. The sound of bad fame is first reified as a physical object, a cannonball (1643-1644), and then accompanied by a dark but multicolored smoke that both defies the laws of physics and offends the nostrils: "And hyt stank as the pit of helle" (1654). By the way, I happen to teach on the 7th floor of our library, the exclusive territory of Notre Dame's internationally renowned Medieval Institute, whereas I'm just a humble member of the humble English department myself -- I hope the conch hasn't earned me too much "bad fame" among the MI crowd.
The props are somewhat less flashy from here on out, and definitely less noisy. When teaching Chaucer's Book of the Duchess
, I bring in my set of reproduction Lewis chessmen
to make what can be an impenetrable metaphor in the poem, the Man in Black's repeated references to his lost love as a "fers" or chess queen, literally tangible. (The pieces are resin reproductions from Studio Ann Carlton
I also joke that perhaps one of the reasons why Chaucer's narrator may not understand the metaphor himself is that the chess queen (at left) isn't nearly as attractive as the description the Man in Black later gives of his lady, possessed of "Ryght white handes" and "Rounde brestes" (955-956).
And then there's my cheap reproduction astrolabe, that medieval combination slide rule and star chart. A long discussion of the astrolabe is perhaps more suitable for a course on The Canterbury Tales, with its cornucopia of astrological references -- or, I suppose, if it exists anywhere, a course on Chaucer's own piece of technical writing The Treatise on the Astrolabe.
Nevertheless, many of the texts we're reading are illuminated by some hands-on time with this hallmark of medieval science and technology, even if only because many well-educated people still seem to think that "medieval science" is an oxymoron. Unfortunately, the characters on my own astrolabe are from the Arabic script, so it's difficult to do too much with it -- this is what you get from buying blindly on eBay, I suppose. Its mere presence in the classroom, however, can give students a new perspective on medieval learning and the medieval view of the universe. I also remind them that Chaunticleer, in addition to being a fantastic singer and a princely lion among roosters, has apparently internalized this complex device, and can make the most sophisticated astrological calculations on his own. The bird never ceases to impress!
Finally, nothing beats a discussion of pilgrim badges -- even in a course not covering the pilgrimage of The Canterbury Tales
-- for opening up a conversation about the coexistence of medieval piety and medieval vulgarity. I pass around my own reproduction pilgrim badge, acquired on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas just a few years ago, during a quick trip to the cathedral gift shop. I then tell them that, for some reason, the modern caretakers of Canterbury Cathedral freely vend these pewter casts in several medieval shapes, but fail to stock the flying phalluses
, vagabond vaginas
, and other exotic badges
that medieval sojourners proudly wore and that really must be seen to be believed. I think that genuine medieval badges are still quite possible to acquire, so some day I'll have to look into getting a really good one.
Of course, after all this talk of props that bring old books to life and make them tangible, at the end of the day nothing is better than a book for achieving this same purpose. Circulating a facsimile of a manuscript is obviously indispensable for introducing the complexities of medieval textual culture to modern readers; I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of the Huntington Library's facsimile of the Ellesmere Chaucer for next to nothing, when the library was offering free copies with every new subscription to the Huntington Library Quarterly. This particular facsimile helpfully reproduces the dimensions of the pages, dwarfing the notoriously hefty Riverside Chaucer we use in class. In fact, the sheer difficulty of passing it around the classroom itself makes a point about the exclusivity of lavish productions like the Ellesmere and the possible conditions under which they might have been used by medieval readers.
I think that about covers it for now, but I'm always looking for new ideas -- so I'm happy to hear about any other "props" that might be useful for teaching Chaucer or medieval literature in general! Of course, I haven't even begun to go into what sorts of unlikely images find their way into my daily PowerPoint presentations. Here's one, though, to leave you with, in my opinion the perfect image of the "whelp" or little puppy who serves as the unlikely oracular dream guide in The Book of the Duchess. Since the dreamer encounters the whelp after a royal hunt has concluded, I can only assume we're to imagine a miniature sighthound, just like my own 12-pound Italian greyhound:
Many of my students, still new to Middle English, had missed the existence of the puppy entirely, but now that they can put a face on him, I don't think they'll soon forget him.
Hello and welcome to TheFishInPrison.com, the new academic website of one Timothy Stephen Miller, also known by the nom d'académie
T. S. Miller and countless other permutations of names, nicknames, and initials in various conference programs and tables of contents. Indeed, one of my goals in setting up this website is simply to establish and consolidate my identity in one publically and permanently accessible location. The more important purposes behind this site, however, involve experimentation with a personal web space as a venue for "publishing" parts of my work not suitable for traditional print publication (e.g., continually updated bibliographies and databases, and any other dabblings in digitally humanistic endeavors that I may undertake). But the mistaken identity problem has become an irritating one for me. For example, I learned early on in my academic career about a noted Byzantinist who continues to publish as Timothy S. Miller, and I next discovered yet another Timothy Miller working in my secondary field of science fiction studies. I'd thought I'd landed upon the solution in trying to publish as often as possible as "T. S. Miller," without anticipating that an aspiring musician with those initials would establish various social media presences that still overshadow my own T. S. Miller page
. "Tim Miller," which is what folks usually call me, has of course already been monopolized by the controversial performance artist known to surprise male members of his audience with lap dances and have his NEA grants revoked
Timothy S. Miller, yours truly, is currently a late-stage Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame working primarily on medieval English literature. My dissertation examines Chaucer's narrative endings in the context of medieval theories of closure and contemporary narratology, and as the most contested sites in the author's reception history. The full abstract will be up elsewhere on this site shortly, as will the complete CV. I would consider myself a Chaucerian above all else, but my interests tend towards chronologically eclectic: without quite trying to, I've published on texts from Vergil to Beowulf
and Chaucer to Junot Díaz. In my author biographies in journals, I like to acknowledge jocoseriously that an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before me -- jocoseriously because I should find out very soon the extent to which this not-so-secret vice will impact my job search.
And here I am, years late to the world of academic blogging, although I have heard that most academic blogs begin right here, in the later stages of the dissertation. If I recall correctly, even Chaucer
was an ABD when he began blogging seriously. I chose the name "The Fish in Prison" for my new online presence (including @TheFishInPrison
) because of its strange euphony and its near-complete absence from Google: if you want to find out more about the fish in prison, the Internet will lead you here.
But what exactly is the fish in prison? The image derives from the end of a passage from Chaucer's dream vision The Parliament of Fowls
, in which the Dreamer has been led to an imposing gate with conflicting inscriptions written on it:
"'Thorgh me men gon into that blysful place
Of hertes hele and dedly woundes cure;
Thorgh me men gon unto the welle of grace,
Ther grene and lusty May shal ever endure.
This is the wey to al good aventure.
Be glad, thow reder, and thy sorwe of-caste;
Al open am I -- passe in, and sped thee faste!'
'Thorgh me men gon,' than spak that other side,
'Unto the mortal strokes of the spere,
Of which Disdayn and Daunger is the gyde,
Ther never tre shal fruyt ne leves bere.
This streem yow ledeth to the sorwful were
Ther as the fish in prysoun is al drye;
Th'eschewing is only the remedye!'" (127-140)
My recent encounter with the phrase "the fish in prison" -- I'd read it many times before, but never really paid attention -- constituted one of those jarring but fruitful clashes of the medieval and the modern: in the late 14th century, "the fish in prison" may not have seemed as odd an image as I find it today. But for us in the early 21st century, the word "prison" conjures several associations alien to the medieval reader, including an almost inevitable sense of comedy: we're free to imagine some anthropomorphized cartoon fish behind bars and dressed in an orange jumpsuit or black and white stripes, perhaps glumly sliding a tray down the cafeteria line hoping that the tattooed hammerhead shark won't shiv him on the way back to his cell.
In fact, conducting a search for the phrase "fish in prison" in Google Images brings up the following two stock images first and second, respectively:
This third image is more what I had in mind:
Of course, the image in Chaucer is that of a medieval fishing weir, a fence-like trap of ancient design that, like all effective traps, allows easy ingress but denies egress. There isn't really supposed to be comedy in this image, but feel free to make your own Admiral Ackbar "It's a weir!" joke here.
(If anyone knows the original source of this image, please let me know; the website from which I took it attributes it to an "unknown source.")
The fish in prison. I find it an endlessly fascinating phrase -- how many ways there are for a fish to be imprisoned! A fish out of water, literally out of its element in the prison of air; or, as in the second cartoon, a fish bounded in the prison of its paltry domestic bowl, king of considerably less than infinite space; or a fish in a pond, a lake, a stream, a sea, a network of oceans, each larger but finally only a larger confinement; or, finally, a fish trapped in a metaphor used by humans and ignored as a being in itself. A fish trapped in that watery weir, not yet suffocating on land or dying slowly like a crustacean in the cookpot, just a fish stuck in a perfectly fish-like place but a place with walls, a fish that can't get out.
In conclusion, I chose to organize my online projects under the banner of "The Fish in Prison" not because it was the perfect metaphor for a doctoral degree in the humanities taking longer than you'd first expected, when you'd initially thought you could do it in the minimum time to degree -- why not, what's the fuss? -- and not because academia itself could be seen to offer the temptation of the fishing weir, in that it seems all too easy to swim right along in the system, but then impossible to get oneself back out of, a course advertised as "the wey to al good aventure" but ultimately nothing but a trap, "the sorwful were" whose only remedy lies in "Th'eschewing," and if not so avoided will keep you perpetually swimming in place against the current, swimming and swimming but not in fact getting anywhere.
To all of those who do feel trapped in the academic weir, I would urge you to remember that "The Fish in Prison" is only one side of the gate, half of the story it has to tell. Onward through the weir to "that blysful place"...